Getting Started with a Content Delivery Network

Mike Gioja, CIO, SVP - IT Product Management, Development, Paychex
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Mike Gioja, CIO, SVP - IT Product Management, Development, Paychex

While the concept of a content delivery network (CDN) isn’t new, the use of these networks has evolved significantly since the 1990s when the World Wide Web exploded in popularity and search engine providers became mainstream users of CDN. Online news sites were the next adopters of the technology, followed by audio and video sites like YouTube. Then came services like Dropbox and Microsoft OneDrive, and now, technology companies that offer software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications are turning to CDN to meet their needs and stay competitive when it comes to application performance, reliability, and cost savings.

“Content delivery networks offer a number of benefits to SaaS technology companies, but before making the decision to jump in, it is important to have an understanding of the benefits.”

A content delivery network is a system of distributed servers that deliver web pages and other web content to a user based on the geographic location of the user, the origin of the webpage, and a content delivery server. According to a report by MicroMarketMonitor, the North American content delivery network market is expected to grow from $1.95 billion in 2013 to $7.83 billion in 2019. This projected growth is largely due to how end users interact with online content, including the growth and popularity of things like streaming media, mobile devices, SaaS applications, and e-commerce.

CDNs offer a number of benefits to SaaS technology companies, but before making the decision to jump in, it is important to have an understanding of the benefits, what is involved with using a CDN, and what to look for when evaluating providers.

Primary reasons why you should consider implementing a content delivery network:

Performance. A CDN will improve the performance of your site or application by pushing static content out across the internet to datacenters in specified geographic locations. This improves the performance of your site by placing the data closer to the user, instead of grabbing it from a centralized datacenter.

Reliability. With a CDN, you are also protecting your users from feeling the impact of an outage if your data center goes down. In this instance, your data has already been copied onto your provider’s servers, allowing users to maintain access to your site and data, or depending on how you are using a CDN, access and use of your application.

IT Benefits and Cost Savings. A CDN will lower the network load of your own data center, resulting in higher performance, particularly during peak times due to higher numbers of visitors on a server consuming resources. Redirecting visitors to edge servers through CDN results in a more balance network load. By creating this balance, you are also cutting down on your content delivery costs.

Before moving to a CDN approach, consider the following:

Understand Security. If you decide to use CDN and house your data on a network of servers, you need to do your research and make sure you understand compliance concerns. Depending on your business, compliance concerns could be a major consideration. Also keep in mind that you are taking your users’ information that they trust you with and copying it to any number of different servers in your CDN, which opens it up to additional risk. Third-party providers offer varying levels of security features and options, but security threats still exist, and you become dependent on your provider’s ability to protect yours and your users’ data.

Building you Knowledge and Skill Set. It is important to understand that there will be a learning curve associated with implementing a CDN. Regardless of the provider you choose, they will do their part to help you with implementation and getting started, but there are additional factors to keep in mind. For instance, the use of a CDN will add additional levels of complexity to your development and deployment processes. Your IT team will need to research and learn the different considerations and changes that will be necessary to make in the development process. Working with a vendor adds another level of complexity on its own. You need to take into consideration how their servers are configured, as well as understand their sensitivity to outages and how that will affect your customers. Being aware of and understanding these aspects will help you to limit exposure and negative impact.

Use it because you need it. While content delivery networks are not  new, their use has evolved and steadily gained popularity with technology companies in the SaaS space. However, CDN is not for everyone. It is important for companies to make sure they have a true need for the benefits of CDN, and are not taking on additional complexities without needing or seeing the benefits.

If you have decided a content delivery network is right for your business, the next step is to evaluate vendors. Not all vendors are created equally, so here are just a few things to keep in mind when making your evaluations:

Overlapping Footprints. Before selecting a CDN provider, make sure you understand where your content needs to be delivered. Are your users all U.S. based, or across the globe? Not all the vendors in the CDN space offer the same footprint, so make sure they have servers in all the areas your users are.

Understanding your Use Case. Just as not all CDN providers have the same reach and footprint, they also have different areas of specialization, so it is important to match your content type with the capabilities of a vendor. Some providers specialize in video and media, while others specialize in secure data and others yet in cloud storage, while some are more generalists. Because of this, it is important to determine what is most important to you and your business and find a provider best suited to meet your needs.

Vendor Infrastructure. Talk to potential vendors about how they manage their infrastructure and determine if it matches your business needs. By doing this, you will minimize some of the development and deployment complexities that come along with using a CDN.

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